The Silver Arrow (Book Review)

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman is a deceptively simple young reader’s fantasy. What starts as a standard, straightforward story about a magic train slowly morphs into a nuanced and emotional reflection of humanity’s power regarding our environment.

What’s it about?

Eleven-year-old Kate loves to read, but she’s pretty much resigned herself to the fact that world-saving adventures don’t happen in real life. Still, she wants excitement so she writes to her mysterious and rich uncle and requests that he give her a birthday present. He complies, and brings her a full-sized train. When Kate and her little brother climb onboard one night, the train whisks them away on a journey full of talking animals and hard work.

What’d I think?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the start, the narration style of The Silver Arrow caught me. It’s witty, full of direct addresses to the audience, and meta observations. This is a style of writing I’ve always been partial to. It keeps the story from feeling too earnest, and it adds an element of humor that might otherwise be lacking.

Interestingly, the writing style gets more traditional the farther in we get. The first chapter is full of silly asides—like the observation that Kate’s mother’s real reaction to seeing the train could not be printed in a children’s book—which served to get me hooked. I’ve aged beyond the target audience for this book, but the style still appeals. As the true stakes of The Silver Arrow become apparent, though, the silliness of the narration tapers off. I honestly didn’t notice it as I was reading; it’s only in retrospect that I see that as Kate and Tom got deeper into the realities of their adventure the frivolous tone was no longer entirely appropriate. The change is subtle and gradual, and it works incredibly well to mirror the style of the writing to the substance of the plot.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first got to the talking animals. I usually find talking animals annoying, but they’re not here. As I read deeper and deeper, I learned that these are not the typical talking animals. They’re real wild animals, given the power of speech so that they can advocate for themselves. At the beginning, Kate, Tom, and the readers don’t really know why the animals are boarding the train. Eventually, though, we learn that the animals are endangered and displaced; they’re traveling to new habitats because humans have made their old ones unlivable. We spend just enough time with the animals to become emotionally attached to them, and when we realize that we are the villains from whom they are running—and the only hero on whom they can depend to save them—it’s devastating.

The last few scenes, particularly the ones with the pangolin and the polar bear, are gut-punches. This all sneaks up. At the start of The Silver Arrow, I never would have anticipated tearing up at the end, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Grossman builds slowly but surely up to this heartbreaking climax.

And yet it isn’t hopeless. It’s all about the power we have as humans, and how we need to consciously use that power for good. Kate was sad that real life offered no opportunities for the heroism she so often reads about in books, but on the Silver Arrow she finds that’s not true. Readers, likewise, will see fighting the good fight as their chance to be real-life heroes. We’ll see Kate and Tom learn that hard work, responsibility, and tiredness are part of the hero’s journey and we’ll be inspired to take up the fight. We may not have a magical talking train, but we can still help save the world because humanity is its own superpower.

I do find it a little odd that a novel that is essentially a call to environmental activism takes place on a train, but you know. Whatever. No book is perfect.

The Silver Arrow could have failed in a lot of places. It could have been too preachy to be enjoyed as a novel. It could have been too fantastical to be a good call to action. It could have fallen into the trap of having annoying talking animals. It could have let its silly narrative tone get in the way of its larger points. Instead, though, it is an effective, powerful, and ultimately hopeful novel that will both entertain children and teach them to look beyond themselves and be good stewards of the earth. I enjoyed this one a lot more than I expected to, and I hope that it will be widely read and loved.

What’s next?

Looking for another funny young reader’s novel with themes of environmentalism and conservationism? Hoot by Carl Hiaasen is amazing.

Want more of the sarcastic, witty narrative voice? Rick Riordan is famous for that.

The Silver Arrow is really a metaphor for environmental stewardship. If you want other allegorical fantasy, you might try C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or, going a bit older, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

Roald Dahl is another good comp author, tone-wise. I’d particularly recommend James and the Giant Peach.

And since I usually bring up the author’s other work in this section… Lev Grossman is also the author of The Magicians. Personally, I didn’t like that one nearly as well, and it is DEFINITELY not for the same age group as The Silver Arrow, but still.

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